Donald Trump’s shocking transformation from reality-show host to Republican presidential front-runner is not some random and bizarre twist of fate. It grows from the failure of our political system to adapt to demographic change, economic disruption and a reorganizing world.
Trump’s victory Saturday in the South Carolina primary appears to have cleared away the cobwebs of denial. However improbable, outlandish or frightening it may be, Trump has a very good chance of becoming the nominee. He can still be beaten, but the debilitated Republican establishment does not seem up to the task; poor Jeb Bush bowed out after winning less than 8 percent of the vote.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz essentially tied for second place, 10 percentage points behind Trump’s winning 32.5 percent. Since John Kasich and Ben Carson turned out to be non-factors, the Republican race is left with three leading candidates – none of whom offers viable solutions. Trump is a wrecking ball, Cruz is a conservative ideologue and Rubio tries to be all things to all people.
None addresses the nation and the world as they really are. Rubio promises an aggressively interventionist foreign policy of the kind that gave us more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cruz pledges to double down on failed economic policies – deregulation, tax cuts, tight money – and turn back the clock on social changes such as same-sex marriage. Neither offers much that sounds new or promising.
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So it should be no surprise that substantial numbers of Republicans are seduced by Trump, who proposes knocking the house down and starting over. His demagoguery succeeds not just because of his fame and charisma. In sometimes appalling ways, he addresses the hopes and fears of much of the Republican base.
His pledge to build a physical wall along the border with Mexico hits a nerve with white voters worried about the “browning” of the nation. His disparagement of free-trade agreements gives hope to blue-collar workers left behind by the flight of manufacturing jobs. His advocacy of restraint in the deployment of U.S. troops, even with the Middle East in flames, draws nods from war-weary military families and veterans.
And Trump’s diagnosis of what is wrong with our politics – that the politicians are bought and paid for by special interests – is essentially correct. His supporters may disapprove of his extreme rhetoric, some of which is racially tinged, but still appreciate the fact that he is beholden to no one.
Can either Cruz or Rubio stop him? It looks doubtful. Trump’s support in the party may be well short of a majority, but he is far ahead of the others. Cruz’s showing in South Carolina was a disappointment; the evangelical vote, which he desperately needs if he is to stay competitive, went narrowly for Trump. Rubio would seem to have wider appeal and thus be the more potent challenger, but there is no guarantee that he will scoop up all of Bush’s support – or that of Kasich and Carson, assuming they eventually drop out. At least some of those votes will go to Trump. And perhaps most ominously for the others, a majority of Republicans now believe Trump will be the nominee.
If he is, however, his appeal to independents should be limited. The Democratic nominee – and that is likely to be Hillary Clinton, following her decisive win over Bernie Sanders in the Nevada caucuses – would begin the general election campaign with a big advantage.
To be sure, Clinton has exploitable weaknesses – notably the fact that so many voters do not consider her trustworthy. But her long record leaves no doubt that she would be a steady hand in the White House, as opposed to Trump, who would be anything but. Passionate anti-Trump sentiment could boost turnout and give Democrats a sweeping victory.
Such a result would not mean, however, that the Democratic Party has done a significantly better job of responding to new realities than the GOP has. It would just mean that most Americans believe putting someone with Trump’s views and temperament in the White House would be unthinkable.
Sanders’ core message is the same as Trump’s: that the system is rigged to favor the rich and powerful. Trump offers himself as an autocratic strongman; Sanders promises a “political revolution.” Together, they have shown that the establishments of both parties have lost touch with big segments of voters.
Many Americans seem to be questioning the traditional liberal-vs.-conservative paradigm. The parties might want to pay attention.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.